Mary O’Donoghue grew up in County Clare; she now lives in Alabama. We featured her story ‘Kiddio at the Wedding’ in Granta 135: New Irish Writing. In this new series, we give authors a space to discuss the way they write – from technique and style to inspirations that inform their craft.
In Robert Musil’s foreword to his short essays in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (most of which appeared between 1920 and 1929, and were published together in 1936), he dwells restively on the act of ‘publish[ing] little tales and observations amidst a thundering, groaning world’, and on ‘speak[ing] of incidentals when there are so many vital issues’. No matter that his ‘little tales’ are extraordinarily vivid texts, still supple and poignant almost a century later. It is suggested that Musil fled to the short essay for succor while trying and failing to finish his monumental novel The Man Without Qualities, and for a time he distrusted their slightness of form. It would take years before he acknowledged that they might have been ‘more durable than [he] had feared’.
Musil’s grave reckoning comes calling lately to my efforts in fiction. To speak of craft would seem a luxury, and I admit I’ve perfidiously allowed Musil’s words take on the shape of excuse. I’ve bent them to explain away my incapacity. Easy to nod to these groaning times, isn’t it, and their thousand thunderous abuses, easy call it quits time and again, isn’t it? But then there’s Bahktin, come to nudge aside all evasion. In The Dialogic Imagination he proposes that the novel’s worth lies in ‘portray[ing] an event on the same time-and-value plane as oneself and one’s contemporaries’, and that to write the present day ‘is to undertake a radical revolution’.
In truth, I’ve always been ready to let the various, more minor thunders in. Through doors (the hewling imprecations of a cat next door in the Boston apartment building where I’m writing this). Through the grill cloth of radio speakers (terrible, near cavalier, verbs about what trucks do to innocent bodies these days, verbs like plough, like mow). From immediately over the shoulder at the Boston Public Library (a woman both high and deep, telling her interlocutor she’s returning to God, with a sub-invocation of Donald Trump). And what was that gnomic phrase, great beauty in its syntactic guitar-picking, that phrase I heard last week in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I make my home, the phrase that now oscillates out of my recall, a loose thread that might maybe be tucked into larger fictional needs and considerations?
Those filaments and their alien kind define my approach to craft. I continue to pinch lovingly at the melancholic key change around second 24 of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’. Our loss of the great writer Denis Johnson does not mean we let go of that elating, estranging moment in ‘Car-Crash While Hitchhiking’ when his narrator, hearing a grief-stricken wife’s cry, proclaims, ‘It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.’
The term ‘craft’ can suggest neatening, turning well, and smoothing into place, and for that I distrust it. Lately I’m more inclined toward the incomplete and stray, and I care more for the receptive state that is unfinished business. And here is where I ought to return to Musil, in consideration of the wrought essay. But I’m already off chasing the vagary Denis Johnson knew to send his narrator questing after.
Photograph © marchi wierson